To celebrate the 50th anniversary of iconic Melbourne theatre venue La Mama, a range of material from the University of Melbourne Archives is on display on the ground floor of Arts West.
In July 1967, inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, Betty Burstall created an ‘immediate’ theatre space in Melbourne to nurture Australian playwrights, directors and a diverse range of other performing artists.
The University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) holds the records of almost all of La Mama’s existence, from the early work of the core performing group to the world premieres of many Australian plays written by theatre stalwarts Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and John Romeril.
The records of onstage events however are only part of what the La Mama collection preserves. Over 100 boxes of material spanning 1967-2006 was listed during a three-year project with volunteers from La Mama, culminating in detailed lists of records available via UMA’s online catalogue. These records represent the important narrative of women in leadership roles in the arts, Liz Jones took over as artistic director in 1977, and the story of a business not obsessed with profit survived, and thrived, for 50 years.
Local issues such as the inner-city property market boom forcing the 2008 Save La Mama Campaign, the relentless struggle to find funding, and formal recognition as a place of significant Victorian heritage, are played out through business and administrative records.
The archive also sheds light on the suburb of Carlton and La Mama’s historic role as a place for its diverse residents to express themselves. Migrant Greek and Italian communities found a home for weekly music and poetry gatherings and Burstall and Jones gave neighbouring student populations a forum to experiment with new ideas.
A collection of theatre posters illustrates trends in art and printing, some still with holes left by the staples used to distribute them round Melbourne. A selection of these posers are currently exhibition on the ground floor of the Arts West.